Interview with Roger Suen

From Los Angeles’ uneasy melting pot of Koreatown to a man made to feel alien in The Big Easy, filmmaker and actor Justin Chon has segued the mass entertainment street cred of his appearances in the likes of the “Twilight” franchise into a distinctively challenging career behind the camera. Charting the we-can’t-just-get-along explosion between Korean store owners and their black customers with the acclaimed indie film “Gook,” then taking an intimate look at the oppressive existence of a Korean bar girl in “Ms. Purple,” Chon has proven a trailblazer into Hollywood’s new Asian awakening – now with no more relevancy than the injustice confronting supposed citizens of all stripes in “Blue Bayou.” As a first-time lead in his own movie, Chon delivers emotionally wrenching work in front of and behind the camera as Antonio, a Korean adoptee into America who’s subsequently been abused in its foster system. Now finding redemption from a motorcycle-robbing past with single mom nurse Kathy (Alicia Vikander) and their upcoming child, Antonio’s new start is upended when a scuffle with Kathy’s cop ex lands him for deportation – a fate in reality also facing many without any criminal past.  

Composer Roger Suen

From dysfunctional race relations to a system chewing out its supposed citizens, Chon’s socially relevant voice has been given stylistically diverse and profoundly music by Roger Suen. Starting off as an assistant and programmer on such major scores as “Prometheus,” “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and “Escape Plan,” Suen would compose additional cues for “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” “The Shape of Water” and such genre shows and games as “Daredevil,” “The Defenders,” “Charmed” and “Spider-Man: Miles Morales.” But apart from the superhero and action arena, Suen’s most deeply personal scoring has been for Chon’s distinctive real-world films, beginning with “Gook.” Creating a tapestry of ironic French ethnicity, urban beats and tender emotion for an LA riots hellscape, then conjuring a jazz drenched, neo-noir atmosphere for “Ms. Purple,” Suen now accompanies Chon to a “Blue Bayou” graced with the budgetary backing of their first studio feature, as graced with actors of popular note (among them Vikander and Vondie Curtis-Hall). 

“Blue Bayou” soundtrack on Back Lot Music

While Chon’s vision and high drama have certainly expanded with “Blue Bayou,” the filmmaker’s naturalistic approach remains thematically consistent with his previous indies, as has Suen’s impressively varied approach. Amidst the swamp and hard-living backwaters, “Blue Bayou” links Korean past and American present. Beginning with a lullaby from Antonio’s birthplace, Suen uses aching, mournful themes to gradually make the character come to terms with his abandonment on both Korean and American soil, the music giving ghostly lyricism to the water-filled imaging of his mother. 

For a new life that Antonio furiously hangs onto as his anger threatens to unwind the family he’s built, Suen mixes regret and hope with an intimate sound that connotes both region and heritage, blowing lonely brass jazz and piano as well for a city built on music. Hearing poignancy with organ, accordion, bubbling guitar rhythm a spectral female voice and finally devastating strings, Suen’s “Blue Bayou” score is a tone poem of how the home is where the heart is, even as it’s torn asunder. Suen’s moving approach is once again a portrait of the inevitable social reckoning that Chon’s films are submerged in, music given deeply moving resonance within a  filmmaker’s impassioned, ever-growing dramatic range that finds a strikingly intimate expanse with “Blue Bayou.”

Roger and Justin on the scoring stage of “Ms. Purple”

Tell us about your musical upbringing.

I started playing piano and trombone as a kid. We were lucky to have a strong music program in Ventura, where I grew up and was exposed to the classical repertoire. On the other side, my dad listened to lots of old standards, Dixieland and big band. On the other side, I’d also listen to lots of rock from the late 80s / early 90s that my older brother would be into. In fact, I was in a Guns N Roses cover band in high school! But ultimately, I think that music salad was a good primer for film music. 

How did you first come to Justin’s attention?

A friend introduced us for “Gook.” Pure chance!

Tell us about that debut film that dealt with the LA riots and the hate between Korean and black communities. Are you surprised that the enmity it depicts against Asians has only grown stronger?

Not at all, I think it was bound to happen. The myth of the “model minority” and the view of Asian Americans as “other” has allowed for a much more subtle form of racism that’s been quietly brewing for a long time and I think the pandemic brought it to the surface. Sadly it took violence to get people’s attention, but hopefully we’ve reached a tipping point for change! Musically, we wanted the score for “Gook” to represent the two central characters, Kamila, who is black and Eli, who is Korean. I would describe them and their unique relationship as quirky but also tender. For whatever reason, Justin and I both immediately thought of Parisian cafe music. Even though the film was set in the ’92 LA riots, we deliberately avoided any hip hop references in the score. The lightness of the colorful Parisian style was a great contrast to the urban setting. This allowed the score to highlight their unique but fragile friendship amidst all the violence and racism. 

Talk about your next score for Justin’s “Ms. Purple,” which mixed noir-ish elements with family drama for a “lounge girl” in LA’s Koreatown.

What I love about Justin’s films is that we try to avoid the kind of score you might expect for each particular film. We try to highlight an aspect of the story with contrast, rather than playing the actual time and place of the story. In “Ms. Purple” we’re set in LA’s gritty Koreatown. So I wrote a string quartet score, with its high society sensibilities, to help highlight, through contrast, the seedy doumi girl underworld, while also expressing the melancholy in Casey, the main character. 

Director/writer/actor Justin Chon on the set of BLUE BAYOU, a Focus Features release. Credit : Ante Cheng / Matthew Chuang / Focus Features

“Blue Bayou” is the first film you’ve scored for Justin where he’s also the lead. How did that affect your collaboration here? 

Not really. I really feel like I’m playing off of “Antonio” rather than Justin while I’m scoring. I try my best to immerse myself in the film and maintain a strong sense of two separate people – Justin as my collaborator and Antonio the character. 

Though it’s very intimate, “Blue Bayou” is Justin’s first film that has some well-known actors in it, as well as a broader visual scope. Did that give more expanse to the score as well?

I don’t think it’s because the actors are well known. It’s definitely due to the visual scope and the more expansive story itself. “Gook” and “Ms. Purple” were both much more localized. While “Blue Bayou” deals with a grander story. It has more sub-plots, covers a wider period of time, and of course, is set against a national immigration issue.   

Sydney Kowalske (left) stars as “Jessie” and Justin Chon (right) stars as “Antonio” in BLUE BAYOU, a Focus Features release. Credit : Focus Features

Talk about the lullaby theme that Antonio hums that starts off the film

The tune is a traditional Korean folk song called “Ja Jai Uri,” and is meant to link us to Antonio’s relationship with the memory of his mother in Korea. We tried to incorporate it into the score, literally, at first but realized that wasn’t necessary. I felt it was stronger to just leave the lullaby on its own. But it did influence the score with the general feel of a lullaby. Antonio never had a mother, so we wanted the score to reflect that sort of longing, like a mother rocking a child. 

Could you identify with Antonio’s culture clash?

Yes, though I felt like it wasn’t a culture clash in the sense that he was balancing two competing cultures. It was more how other people’s idea of a Korean American rejected the reality of who he was, an American with only a small semblance of Korean Culture. I was born in LA and grew up in Ventura, CA, a mostly white town. Many of Antonio’s experiences in the film, I’ve experienced. From simple microaggressions like “Where are you really from?” to getting beat up after school. So, Antonio’s pain of being rejected by his own country is something I could relate to very well. 

Actor/writer/director Justin Chon in BLUE BAYOU, a Focus Features release. Credit : Focus Features

How did you want to musically personify a character caught between his Korean past and American present?

There’s some pipa tucked away in the score and Justin had me come up with a faux Korean Melody to be played in the jazz number “Leaving New Orleans.” But mostly I tried to capture the general feeling of being stuck. The swaying lullaby, mentioned before, worked great for that sense of rocking back and forth without ever getting anywhere. No matter what he did, he couldn’t win. 

Antonio befriends Parker, a Vietnamese woman suffering from cancer. Her father makes a point of telling what the Korean and Vietnamese culture have in common when it comes to their struggles. How did you want to link their country’s music in that way?

Anytime we reference Parker, we get a variation of Antonio’s theme, and it’s usually played on the accordion. I saw the accordion as being related to the organ, which is often heard with Antonio. So we get this variation in both theme and timbre. It’s subtle but hopefully it draws a thorough line between their experiences. As before, we stayed away from any direct references to Vietnamese or Korean music. 

(L to R) Sydney Kowalske as “Jessie”, Justin Chon as “Antonio” and Alicia Vikander as “Kathy” in BLUE BAYOU, a Focus Features release. Credit : Focus Features

How did you jazzily want to express New Orleans?

We tried to express it subtly. There are only a few moments in the city, where you hear a distant street musician playing the faux Korean melody on trumpet. It later serves as the tune in the jazz combo piece, “Leaving New Orleans.”  It’s a sort of goodbye letter from the city to Antonio, as he spends his last moments there with his family. The idea was to take this Korean melody, played in a distinctly American idiom, kind of like “Hey, sorry we tried.”

Justin’s films always give you a wide berth in terms of instruments and orchestrations you use, here with organ, accordion, voice and guitar among many others. How did you decide upon those musical “voices” here?

We wanted to represent the bayou in some way. At first I kept thinking about the water, but I couldn’t quite get it to work. Then I remember one evening walking my dog and the wind was rustling the trees. It dawned on me the wind is what Antonio feels at the Bayou; he’s not going for a swim (not yet anyways). So I thought of the accordion representing the wind and as an instrument of the common man seemed to fit Antonio. The organ was an offshoot of this, as it could be played tenderly and bring a lot of power in the final climatic cues, while still relating to the bayou as a “wind” instrument. 

Justin Chon (left) stars as “Antonio” and Alicia Vikander (right) stars as “Kathy” in BLUE BAYOU, a Focus Features release. Credit : Focus Features

“Blue Bayou” mixes naturalism with high drama. How did you want to balance that subtle approach with the film’s more emotionally operatic moments?

The score tends to live within Antonio’s head. You’ll notice the majority of cues happen in moments of introspection and are built around a minimal amount of musical material. Through the first two acts, we’re constantly compressing the spring with subtle moments, until we release it in an operatic way as Antonio explodes into the Bayou. We sort of “balance the equation that way” while still staying in Antonio’s mind, and drawing from the same bits of material. 

There are also lyrically surreal moments that bridge Antonio’s infant past with his adult present, leading to a haunted “reunion” with his birth mother. How did you want to capture those poetic past and ultimately present ghostly quality?

Building off the “wind” sound of the accordion and organ was surprisingly effective in creating a dreamy landscape. For example, in many of the surreal bayou cues, the organ would play chords and melodies with long pauses in between, letting the sounds reverberate over the bayou so to speak. While there are other, more lucid moments in the present, we continue the use of the same instruments, but the reverberation is dialed back, and we have a more forward moving style of playing. 

(L to R) Actor Alicia Vikander, actor Sydney Kowalske and actor/writer/director Justin Chon on the set of BLUE BAYOU, a Focus Features release. Credit : Focus Features

One particularly impressive cue is how you lead out of Alice Vikander’s lovely version of “Blue Bayou.” How difficult was that to achieve?

Thank you! It’s always a bit terrifying following a famous song in a film, but what made it easier here is doubling down on the more subtle nuances of the score by, again, going inside Antonio’s head. By playing on how the song elicits these surreal thoughts of his mother, it both contrasts and becomes a fitting companion to Alicia’s excellent performance. 

What were the pandemic challenges of scoring “Blue Bayou?”

Oh boy, where do I begin?! We were scheduled to score at Capitol right as the shutdown was beginning. Like most, we were hoping it would be over in a month or two. So we kept pushing the scoring date and constantly changing recording venues as each facility shut down. Finally by mid-summer, I accepted that we would have to record this entirely remotely. Each musician would have to record themselves and send the stems back to me to be put back together digitally. The process was arduous to say the least, but the musicians did an amazing job and the way the music community stepped up and made it happen was nothing short of a miracle and an incredibly touching moment for me. 

Photo by Annie Bang

Do you hope the score helps the film’s message to change people’s minds when it comes to how seemingly naturalized “citizens” are being deported?

I hope so! Hopefully the score supports the film and allows people to truly feel, on an individual and emotional level of what being pulled away from your home feels like. Otherwise, it seems having just an intellectual understanding can only take us so far. 

Marvel’s The Defenders (Netflix)

You’ve also done quite a bit of additional composing on such superhero shows as “Daredevil,” “The Defenders” and “Krypton.” What do you think that shows about your more epic talents, and would you like to continue in that arena in addition to hard dramas?

I would LOVE to continue scoring epic superhero shows! I think it really allows me to dip into other areas of scoring that hard dramas don’t really support. You get a much larger palette of musical color to work with, which I really love. And with the extra color it’s a fun challenge to balance both the character drama and the action / tension drama. It’s an amazing space to utilize both the methods of these hard dramas mixed with some really fun orchestral and electronic writing. 

On your personal time, you are an avid rock climber. How did you take up that past time, and do you think it feeds your musical nature as well?

Growing up, my family always went on vacations to national parks. It was one way we were able to live the American Dream. So I always had a deep love of the outdoors. In high school a good friend took me rock climbing, and I instantly fell in love with it. I realized it allowed me a unique way to experience and express my love of nature; much like composition did for music. So I think the two developed in tandem. So climbing is very much a part of my musical nature. Beyond the athletic and adventure aspects, climbing is very much a creative and spiritual endeavor and it both fuels and influences the way I write music.

(L to R) Actor Alicia Vikander and actor/writer/director Justin Chon in BLUE BAYOU, a Focus Features release. Credit : Focus Features

How do you hope that “Blue Bayou” adds to the new renaissance of Korean films, and characters in Hollywood like “Parasite” and “Minari?”

It’s really exciting to see so many Asian stories out there. I actually haven’t seen “Parasite” and “Minari,” So while Blue Bayou joins those films in ushering in more inclusion and Asian perspectives, I hope it stands apart in telling its own unique story, that helps break away from the longstanding idea of Asian Americans as a monolith. 

How do you think that “Blue Bayou” fits into the theme of Justin’s voice as a filmmaker? And where do you see Justin going, and your music with him?

Justin is definitely a filmmaker that tells stories off the beaten path. He does so in a way that is instantly familiar, drawing on universal themes like family, and “Blue Bayou” is no exception. Undoubtedly, Justin will continue to tell these diverse stories, but he’ll always be reinventing his filmmaking from project to project.. So what comes next will be as much of a surprise to me as it is to you. 

See “Blue Bayou” in cinemas, with Roger Suen’s score available on Back Lot Music HERE

https://www.amazon.com/Bayou-Original-Motion-Picture-Soundtrack/dp/B09C6PWGPW/ref=sr_1_3?crid=1BIYHNTV8TQ0E&dchild=1&keywords=blue+bayou+soundtrack&qid=1631889202&sr=8-3

Listen to “Gook” and “Ms. Purple” HERE

https://www.amazon.com/Gook-Original-Motion-Picture-Score/dp/B077ZG44L4/ref=sr_1_3?keywords=gook+soundtrack+roger+suen&qid=1631233527&sr=8-3

https://www.amazon.com/Ms-purple-Original-Motion-Picture-Soundtrack/dp/B07T4N5BWN/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=roger+suen+ms.+purple&qid=1631210475&sr=8-1

Visit Roger Suen’s web site at;

http://elcapproductions.com

Special thanks to Nikki Walsh at Back Lot Music

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